The women of Gee’s Bend—a small, remote, Black community in Alabama—have created hundreds of quilt masterpieces dating from the early twentieth century to the present. Resembling an inland island, Gee’s Bend is surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River. The some seven hundred or so inhabitants of this small, rural community are mostly descendants of slaves, and for generations they worked the fields belonging to the local Pettway plantation. Quiltmakers there have produced countless patchwork masterpieces beginning as far back as the mid-nineteenth century, with the oldest existing examples dating from the 1920s. Enlivened by a visual imagination that extends the expressive boundaries of the quilt genre, these astounding creations constitute a crucial chapter in the history of American art.
Gee’s Bend quilts carry forward an old and proud tradition of textiles made for home and family. They represent only a part of the rich body of African American quilts. But they are in a league by themselves. Few other places can boast the extent of Gee’s Bend’s artistic achievement, the result of both geographical isolation and an unusual degree of cultural continuity. In few places elsewhere have works been found by three and sometimes four generations of women in the same family, or works that bear witness to visual conversations among community quilting groups and lineages. Gee’s Bend’s art also stands out for its flair—quilts composed boldly and improvisationally, in geometries that transform recycled work clothes and dresses, feed sacks, and fabric remnants.
Types of Quilts
Abstraction & Improvisation
Most Gee's Bend quilts can be called improvisational or "my way" quilts. Uninhibited by the norms of fine or folk art, the Bend quiltmakers have been guided by a faith in personal vision; most of them start with basic forms and head off "their way" with unexpected patterns, unusual colors, and surprising rhythms. The quiltmakers of Gee's Bend and Rehoboth tell similar stories when describing their separate styles; taken together, the women's insistence on developing a unique artistic voice becomes a statement about their community's tradition. The people of the Bend like to do things in certain ways and have stuck to them. Theirs are handsome, if unorthodox, works of art, yet the shared unorthodoxy attests to the stabilizing power of a tradition that, for many decades, has fostered individualism and even eccentricity. By making what they want to make, these women reveal innovative ways of looking at fabric, design, and format and have produced work that is utterly original and ranks with the finest abstract art in any tradition.
Housetop & Bricklayer
Along County Road 29, many women refer to any quilt dominated by concentric squares as a "Housetop," which reigns as the area's most favored "pattern." Its all-around simplicity hosts many experiments in formal reduction and, at the same time, offers a compositional flexibility unchallenged by other multipiece patterns. The "Housetop," from the composite block down to its constituent pieces, echoes the right angles of the quilt's borders, initiating visual exchanges between the work's edges and what is inside. Traditional African American "call and response," a ritual technique of music and religious worship, is intrinsic to the target-like push and pull among elements. The feedback effects have mesmerized and inspired generations of Gee's Bend quiltmakers. Conceived broadly, the "Housetop" is an attitude, an approach toward form and construction. It begins with a medallion of solid cloth, or one of an endless number of pieced motifs, to anchor the quilt. After that, "Housetops" share the technique of joining rectangular strips of cloth so that the end of a strip's long side connects to one short side of a neighboring strip, eventually forming a kind of frame surrounding the central patch; increasingly larger frames or borders are added until a block is declared complete.
Patterns & Geometry
The fundamental geometries of Gee's Bend quilts shine in works made with single repeating patches: triangles, squares, diamonds, and hexagons. These forms, like the work-clothes quilt genre, offer metaphors for existence in the Bend, where art discovered ways to sprout from the ordinariness of daily life. As a category, quilts dominated by a single shape express themselves almost magically, repeating, revising, and rearranging an element in a dizzying number of mutations and variations on themes. Whether arranged into "Housetop" configurations, spotlighted as center medallions with multiple surrounding borders, channeled into lines and stripes of visual energy, or laid out as a "One Patch," the single-form quilts illustrated here conform to compositions traditionally favored throughout the Gee's Bend area.
In 1972 the Freedom Quilting Bee, a sewing cooperative based in Alberta, Alabama, near Gee's Bend, secured a contract with Sears, Roebuck to produce corduroy pillow covers. Made of a wide-wale cotton corduroy, the covers came in a variety of colors including "gold," "avocado leaf," "tangerine," and "cherry red." Production of the Sears pillow covers left little room for personal creativity, as labor at the Freedom Quilting Bee was divided to maximize daily output. Yet despite the standardized and repetitive process involved in producing the pillow covers, the availability of corduroy, a fabric seldom used before by the Gee's Bend quiltmakers, stimulated a profound creative response. Leftover lengths and scraps of corduroy were taken home by workers at the Bee. Given to friends and family or bundled for sale within the community, the scraps were then transformed from standardized remnants into vibrant and individualized works of art.
The tradition of the patchwork quilt was born of scarcity and resourcefulness, arising in times and places where the shortages of cloth called for the inventive salvaging of fabric scraps and remnants. In Gee's Bend, this recycling practice became the founding ethos for generations of quiltmakers who have transformed otherwise useless material into marvels of textile art. Until the middle of the twentieth century, the majority of quilts from the area were made from worn-out work clothes, a palette of old shirts, overalls, aprons and dress bottoms whose stains, tears, and faded denim patches provide a tangible record of lives marked by seasons of hard labor in the fields of the rural South.